There are a few icons called Louis. Like Louis XIV, the Sun King, and Louis Armstrong, the jazz king. But the one with a vehicular slant is Louis Vuitton, the bag king, maker of expensive luggage that has graced the trunk of a many an upmarket European car. Although, being the most forged fashion brand in history, it might not be easy to tell which cars had the kosher stuff. Founded in 1854, the Louis Vuitton company has been around since before the horseless carriage. A 14-year-old Louis (born in 1821) left his hometown of Anchay, in France, for the nation's capital. He made this journey of about 250 miles on foot, picking up odd jobs on the way to pay for food and lodging. It took a year, but once he reached sophisticated, fashion-conscious Paris, Vuitton became an apprentice malletier with the luggage maker Monsieur Marechal. This was a bit like going to Silicon Valley in the 1970s with a degree in computer science.
Vuitton caught the crest of a wave. Travel was becoming more attractive to the wealthy. Steam engines and ocean liners led to a demand for trunks, somewhere to stow fineries and unguents. Vuitton not only became an artisan, he became an innovator. Other trunks had curved tops so water would run off. He made a flat-topped trunk that could be stacked, adding a touch of luxury by covering it in canvas.
Vuitton had found his mtier, established a reputation and set up his own company. In 1875 came the Wardrobe Trunk, an ingenious creation that incorporated hanging space and several drawers. A year later, he constructed the Trunk Bed for the French explorer De Brazza to take into the Congo. Vuitton's son, George, took the company to even greater heights by developing the pick-proof five-tumbler lock and the now-iconic Monogram Design canvas (arguably establishing the first-ever designer label). He wrote a book (Le Voyage) on the evolution of travel and even took his new luggage pieces to the deserts of North Africa to 'road-test' them.
Now we get around to the road. High society's love of travel quickly expanded to include the automobile. By equipping cars with bespoke luggage for the 1907 Peking to Paris rally and the 1908 New York to Paris rally, the company positioned itself as an essential accessory to the romance of the road-a kind of emotional baggage, if you will.
When grandson Gaston Louis came on board, he created the Keepall bag in 1924, a soft leather item (still made with quality materials and attention to detail-and still made today) that was perfect for putting into a car. He also developed a treatment for leather that made it waterproof.
This automotive connection is something LVMH (Louis Vuitton Mot Hennessy, as the company is known today) still perpetuates with the Louis Vuitton Classic, a regular car-fest that either has some themed show (such as beautiful American cars) or involves a jaunt through some exotic locale or other; the China Run in 1998 went from Dalian to Beijing, about 300 miles. The posters for these events are usually pretty cool too.
Because almost 99 percent of items bearing the LV logo are counterfeit, usually from a Far Eastern sweatshop, it's difficult to fully appreciate the real thing. Proper Louis Vuitton luggage and accessories have become a fashion cult because they are stylish and elegant (as epitomized by the ever-gamine Audrey Hepburn when she sported an LV bag in the 1963 movie Charade, which also starred the ever-suave Cary Grant). Yet they're also well made (predominantly by hand) and durable. Manufacturing methods have changed little since the 19th century. Trunks take up to 60 hours to make; their frames are constructed from 30-year-old poplar that has dried for at least four years. A suitcase takes 15 hours to produce.
LVMH was in the running to buy Aston Martin before Prodrive stumped up $925 million. Now that would have been interesting. Something with an LV logo would no doubt have made it into a Bond film.